The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The beginning of The Mirror and the Light finds Cromwell preparing for King Henry's third marriage, to Jane Seymour, and we stay with him up until the moment of his execution in 1540. When I say we stay with him, I mean we see every single thing through his eyes and are witness to his every thought. I can't think of another book in which I've felt so intimately acquainted with the main character, and yet this is a third person narrative. It's not Cromwell himself who is sharing this thoughts with us - it's more as if we are inhabiting him, quietly squatting somewhere in his head and co-existing with him, observing him from within his own self.
This makes the reader's knowledge of what's to come all the more powerful. It's not that Cromwell isn't fully aware of the precariousness of his position - "Henry is the mirror; he is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves, he is gone" - but as we see Cromwell so acutely aware of the King's every look, every tiny shift in mood to be analysed and pandered to, we can only feel almost painfully helpless in our awareness of his fate. Throughout the book, he imagines his retirement on a country estate - an estate formerly belonging to one of the monasteries he has dissolved - while we, watching from inside, know all too well that he'll never get there. The last few chapters, which deal with Cromwell's imprisonment and death and in which we accompany him to the executioner's block, are among the most uncomfortably affecting I've ever read and all the more so for their psychological plausibility.
It's a measure of Mantel's remarkable skill that while she doesn't shy away from Cromwell's undeniable faults - he is manipulative; he is a bully; he is hungry for power; he is vengeful; he does play a role in condemning others to death (although he also asks the King to be merciful when it comes to the method of execution) - we still feel sympathy for him. We find Cromwell in a much more tense state than we've ever seen him before, haunted (possibly even literally) by the ghosts of his past. He is more obsessed than ever with his former master Cardinal Wolsey - the most sadness he ever seems to feel stems from an accusation that he betrayed Wolsey. He is also still partly driven, even in his 50s, by an intense hatred of his own brutish, drunken father, and surely his desire to distance himself from his real father is strongly linked to the fatherly role the late Wolsey seems to fulfil in his psyche. But while so many of Cromwell's motives are negative, there are positive ones too. His workaholic energy and almost superhuman attention to detail are often devoted to schemes he truly believes are for the greater good, and he is frequently generous, reasonable and kind. While he's the most powerful man in England bar the King himself, he's a working class man who is simultaneously contemptuous and envious of the aristocracy, who constantly remind him of, and mock him for, his low-born origins - his success, to them, is a disturbing threat to the natural order. Mantel's Cromwell is a dark and fascinating creation, one of the most complex and fully realised protagonists I've ever encountered.
And yet, it should absolutely not be underestimated how surprisingly funny this book often is. Cromwell himself has an acerbic wit and a keen eye for the absurd, and an intelligence and detachment which gives him a natural talent for sarcasm and astute observation. The irreverent back-and-forth between Cromwell and his own men - his considerably less dynamic son Gregory, his loyal ward Rafe Sadler and Thomas 'Call-Me' Wriothesley - is a joy to read, as are his conversations with his shady French servant, Christophe, and even with Jane Seymour, whose placidity and social awkwardness are frequently played for laughs.
Despite the very male world of Henry's privy council and Cromwell's own circles, Mantel has a lot to say about women and their treatment, and every female character is complicated and three-dimensional. We're made acutely aware of the way women at the Tudor court are used as brood mares and bargaining chips with very little agency of their own - at one point, some confusion over a forthcoming marriage leads to a woman being told she is to marry a certain man only to find herself being married to a different one. Henry's disastrous fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves is negotiated like a business deal, as Cromwell's men are sent all over Europe to size up various princesses and duchesses as potential brides for the King. Despite his part in this, Cromwell does feel the absence of women in his life very keenly - his wife and daughters are all long dead after an epidemic of sweating sickness killed them all when his children were still small, and he thinks constantly of Anselma, the woman he loved when he was a young man overseas. There is an interesting development relating to this, which is perhaps the only part of the book I would have liked to have seen developed further, but as this element is an invention of Mantel's and not historical fact, I won't reveal what it is.
The Mirror and the Light is exquisitely written. It's packed with minute detail, but every last one of them is welcome. At the same time there's a strong sense of the bigger picture - the decisions Cromwell makes and the passing whims of the King have national and international consequences which still affect us today. While the historical detail and the sense of period and place it brings to the novel are remarkable and fascinating, Mantel never loses sight of the way that sometimes, the similarities between our own time and a historical period are more powerful than the differences.